Tap tourists into the local lingo


MANGAN'S WORLD:HOW BEST to sense the soul of a foreign country? Once we land abroad, we begin to immerse ourselves in the local language, landscape, literature, music, food and culture. We imbibe the sense and sensibilities, rhythms and melodies of a place in so many varied ways.

In Spain, for example, we are engulfed in marimba music, flamenco dance, the lisping, lilting sounds of Español. It infuses us, along with the sashaying senoritas and taverna tapas. The same is true of France, Russia, Japan, but not Ireland. Here there is a disconnect. While one can trace a common thread through our music, landscape, dance and literature, our language is something different, a foreign entity with no echoes in the rest of our culture.

It must be confusing for tourists. How are they meant to make sense of the dichotomy? Like trying to understand Paris while surrounded by Japanese. It feels disloyal to English to point out that it is an alien thread, a strand of aluminium running through the tapestry of our national consciousness. But, it’s a fact that our music, dance, sports and myths were created by Irish speakers for Irish speakers – the rhythms and resonances of the language are in their very DNA.

Would it help if tourists engaged more directly with An Gaeilge? After all, one returns home from an African safari with a smattering of Swahili, or from Italy with poco italiano– a taste of the country on our tongue: oleaginous Italian, tangy Spanish, tart German. At best, a visitor to Ireland learns fáilte, firand mná– most don’t get to hear them pronounced properly. I always encourage tourists to spend a few days in the Gaeltacht. It is the quickest way to get a deeper sense of who we are – or were.

Oideas Gael in Gleann Cholm Cille has always been the best place to holiday as Gaeilge. For 25 years it has run language classes mixed with cultural and outdoor activities. The participants are about as far from the tweedy, fáinne-wearing whiskered Gaeilgeoirí as you can imagine. It attracts a wonderful, eclectic mix – press barons, rock-chicks, fashion models, film-makers and presidents, not to mention countless American academics and Japanese hibernophiles. The only drawback to Oideas Gael is the turkey-gobble Donegal dialect one learns there. (Joking! - sort of.)

For the sweetest, purest, angels-strumming-harp-strings Gaolainnhead to the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht on the Dingle Peninsula. Seán and T P Ó Conchúir run Gaeilge Beo, a range of cultural and activity holidays through Irish, involving angling trips, hill walking, archaeological tours, set dancing, birdwatching, and various arts and crafts.

If you insist on learning the garbled Donegal tongue, Oideas Gael has similar courses, and far more besides (including bodhrán playing, environmental studies, tapestry weaving and literary explorations). Both groups feature a pub seisiúnas a core element – a place to practise new focailand to meet other Gaeilgeoirí fuelled with liquid courage. While it can be hard to get locals to tolerate one’s mangled syntax during the busy summer season, as the pubs empty in autumn people are more amenable to the company of stilted-tongued blow-ins, and you can get a genuine sense of community life.

For tourists, we need to make our language more visible – have exhibitions, performances and events that are bilingual, or that try to convey the language in a non-linguistic way. I know the Abbey and Irish Film Board have plans to produce bilingual works in the future, and as a meagre first gesture, I’m putting on a bilingual play in the ABSOLUT Fringe (formerly the Dublin Fringe Festival) next week. For the language, it’s either now or never; shouldn’t we give it one last hurrah before consigning it to oblivion?

- Bás Tongue, written and performed by Manchán Magan and Roxanna Nic Lilam, is at the Project Arts Centre, September 19th to 24th at 8.30pm. See fringefest.com.